Trying to Make Sense of Scopolamine-Gate

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Justify | Horsephotos

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That Justify (Scat Daddy) tested positive for an illegal substance following his win in the GI Santa Anita Derby is something that has shaken the horse racing world and a story that is likely to continue to resonate within the industry and public for years to come. Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about it, but there is still so much that we don't know and don't understand.

Some thoughts, questions and opinions on the Justify-Scopolamine story.

1) That the California Horse Racing Board did not have enough time to properly investigate the situation prior to the running of the GI Kentucky Derby is perfectly plausible. So, too, is its contention that the horse should not have been disqualified because it felt that Scopolamine wound up in the horse due to environmental contamination.

But the CHRB also made some serious mistakes along the way, all of them revolving around transparency. It treated this case like it involved a horse getting a positive in the fourth at the Fresno Fair. Someone should have realized that a story about a failed drug test on a Triple Crown winner was going to get out someday and had the CHRB come forward and addressed the issue and told reporters everything it knew as soon as it was legally able to do so, we wouldn't have the mess we have on our hands now.

When all the I's were dotted and T's were crossed and the CHRB was able to discuss the Scopolamine, it should have immediately held a press conference and held nothing back. This was, after all, a very important story involving a horse going for a Triple Crown. That way, it could have gotten out front on the story and explained why the horse was allowed to run in the Derby. It could have put forth a reasonable, fairly easy-to-understand argument about environmental contamination. The story wouldn't have gone away overnight, but it also never would have turned into what it has–a sensationalistic story that has given the sport yet another kick in the gut.

When the CHRB eventually decided to exonerate trainer Bob Baffert and not disqualify Justify from the Santa Anita Derby, it should have held another press conference explaining why it made its decision.

There are still things we do not know, like how what level of the drug was found in the horse? Did the CHRB ever test the hay and straw in the Baffert barn?

The CHRB also has to start choosing staff and board members who do not have direct connections with participants in the industry. That Chuck Winner, the former CHRB's chairman who was still in charge at the time of the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, has used Baffert as his trainer is a terrible optic.

2) The New York Times used Dr. Rick Sams as its only source that would indict Justify. “He said the amount of Scopolamine found in Justify–300 nanograms per milliliter–was excessive, and suggested the drug was intended to enhance performance,” the paper wrote.

Sams was head of the drug lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission from 2011 to 2018 and would have been responsible for testing the horses in the Kentucky Derby. Justify did not fail a test in that race.

However, Churchill Downs released a statement Thursday that said neither it nor the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had any knowledge of the Scopolamine positive until the story broke in the Times. Then how is that Sams knows not only the precise amount of the drug found in Justify in a test conducted by another racing commission, but anything about the matter at all beyond what has been reported in the press?

Sams did not return repeated phone calls left by the TDN or respond to an email

3) Why is Scopolamine even illegal in the first place?

With the exception of Sams, virtually every expert in the field who has been interviewed said the drug is not a performance-enhancer. Craig Robertson, the lawyer representing Baffert said that it defies logic that a trainer would give a horse Scopolamine in an attempt to win a race. “No trainer would ever intentionally administer Scopolamine to a horse. It has a depressant effect and would do anything but enhance the performance of a horse.”

That it can inadvertently wind up in a horse through environmental contamination through no fault of the trainer makes it even more problematic that it is a banned substance.

4) The Harm Done to the Sport

This is a complicated story and the most likely conclusion is that the horse was not intentionally drugged in a an effort to win the Santa Anita Derby. But the general public is never going to realize that or get past the headlines, most of which read something along the line of “Triple Crown winner drugged.” They won't understand that Scopolamine is a relatively innocuous substance or the difference between environmental contamination and a serious drug being injected into a horse. Racing has gotten enough black eyes, some of them deserved. This one isn't fair.

5) Would a Scopolamine Positive Result in a Disqualification?

This is a key question because if the positive test meant nothing more than a fine or penalty for Baffert, and not that the Santa Anita Derby victory would have been taken away from Justify, it would be a moot point so far as whether or not he would have been eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby.

So, what's the answer? No one seems to know.

Chuck Winner, who was Chairman of the CHRB at the time of the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, issued a statement that read: “Furthermore, under ARCI guidelines scopolamine is a class 4C substance, which would not trigger disqualification or re-distribution of a purse. Under CHRB Rule 1843.2, classifications are based on the ARCI guidelines, unless specifically modified by the Board. The Board never modified that designation.”

The ARCI responded with a statement of its owns contradicting Winner. “According to the penalty guidelines, if this drug is found in a post-race sample, the horse is to be disqualified and the owner loses the purse in the absence of mitigating circumstances,” it read. “The exact language reads: 'Disqualification and loss of purse in the absence of mitigating circumstances. Horse must pass commission-approved examination before being eligible to run.”

The Times story had still a different explanation concerning the matter of a disqualification versus a non-disqualification.

“In the months that followed the decision to drop the case against Justify, the racing board moved to lessen the penalty for a Scopolamine violation from disqualification and forfeiture of purse to only a fine and suspension,” the Times wrote.

So which is it and why the confusion? The different versions imply that regulators may have not been aware of what exactly the rules were. If so, that sort of sloppiness is unacceptable.

 

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